MOTHER EARTH, FATHER SKY

By Sue Harrison

Doubleday. 313 pp. $19.95

AS ADVERTISED by its title, Sue Harrison's feminist fable, Mother Earth, Father Sky, aims at mythic storytelling. The narrative follows a time-honored fiction formula which goes like this: Carefree at hearth and home, the young protagonist skips off on some jaunt only to find when he returns that his village-castle-settlement or teepee has been attacked and destroyed. Naked, terrified, sorrowful and alone, the young hero must flee to face the harsh unknown, establish a new base and, if the plot thickens satisfyingly, wreak revenge on the enemies of his desecrated childhood home.

"Star Wars" is a recent example of the countless fairy stories, romantic historicals and sagas that have put this Jungian heroic travail into action. In Sue Harrison's poetically written book, however, the formula's protagonist is not a hero, but a heroine.

Set in the ice age summer of 7056 B.C., the story begins as Chagak, a young Aleut, is about to be married to Seal Stalker, her village's most eligible bachelor. Happily anticipating the joys of wife and motherhood, she goes off to pick berries. She returns to a scene of carnage. Evil "short ones" have set upon her village and massacred everyone in it.

Chagak buries the dead and decides to join them, since life hardly seems worth living. "She clung to the grass as the sea otter clings to the kelp, to keep the waves from pulling her away, to keep the waves from pulling her away." But, true to heroic prescription, Chagak marshals her wits and courage and paddles off to find the village of Many Whales, her grandfather.

Instead, the sea casts her up on the beach of Shuganan, a lonely carver of ivory and a shaman with mysterious powers. He is one in a long and distinguished literary line of mentors and magicians that includes Prospero, Merlin, Gandalf and Luke Skywalker's Obi-wan Kenobi. But the most obvious parallel has to be with Creb, the lovable Mog-ur in Jean Auel's best selling Clan of the Cave Bear. It is Mogur who recognized and nurtures the special qualities in Auel's heroine, Ayla, and Shuganan does exactly the same for Chagak.

As Harrison's prehistoric tale seems so obviously patterned after Auel's, a comparison between the two is inevitable. It's interesting that, unlike typical male protagonists who battle monsters and warriors, the challenge both Chagak and Ayla must meet has more to do with learning how to deal with the opposite sex.

In Cave Bear, Ayla's courage and natural superiority bring down upon her head the irrational wrath of the prototypical male-chauvinist pig, Broud. Similarly, though Chagak does learn to protect herself from natural predators with the bola and knife, her most serious and dangerous threat comes from the male of her own species. The appropriately named "Man-who-kills," one of the marauders who destroyed Chagak's village, shows up on Shuganan's beach. He claims for her wife, rapes and beats her and almost kills Shuganan.

Only Shuganan's mysterious inner strength and Chagak's talent for survival enable the two to keep Man-who-kills at bay long enough so that they can overcome him. But before this happens he impregnates Chagak and she must deal with bearing and deciding whether or not to nurture a son whose father she hated.

One wonders why so many women these days are writing about the trials and tribulations -- and, most notably, the triumphs -- of females in pre-history. Other examples, such as Morgan Llywelyn's The Horse Goddess, come to mind. Is it because women, so long unchronicled by the official historians, need to create a history for themselves?

If so, it seems to me that Mother Earth, Father Sky is more successful in this endeavor than Clan of the Cave Bear. The adventures of Auel's liberated Ayla read like entertaining fantasy. Harrison's Chagak, on the other hand, is a more believable primitive heroine. The lyrical tone of Harrison's writing adds to the intimately mythic quality of the tale and the detail seems fascinating and authentic. But beyond that, Mother Earth, Father Sky is a satisfying story which speaks to both men and women about the heartbreaking challenges and mysterious joys of life and love. Louise Titchener is the author of many novels, including the forthcoming children's fantasy, "The Year of the Magic Moon."